You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.
– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
I’m about two weeks into my first solo-travel trip when I finally drum up the courage to rent a motorbike.
Engine roaring, I head up into the hills of Cat Ba island, off the coast of northern Vietnam. Thick and humid air rushes by. The machine vibrates beneath me as I twist through narrow, winding roads. To my right, the karst mountains of Ha Long Bay dot the horizon.
Five inches [about 13 centimetres] below my feet, there is asphalt with potholes. Ahead, there’s a group of pigs and a sharp curve. I loosen up on the gas handle and bank left, and then I accelerate again.
There’s a small kid walking alongside the road. My mind fills with thoughts. I wonder how old she is. Shouldn’t she be in school right now? No, remember the backpacker you had a conversation with just before you left on this little adventure? He said the island is packed, because it’s a Vietnamese holiday.
Ah, right, now I remember. That guy seemed cool. Maybe we’ll catch him for dinner. We should go to that restaurant the hostel owner recommended earlier. The conversation in my head keeps going until I’m jostled back to the present, when I notice the whole road up ahead is flooded. Any longer and my inner monologue could’ve gotten me severely hurt.
With a heightened awareness, I find a way to get past the huge lake of water consuming the road.It hits me suddenly then, like an earthquake—this is what Robert Pirsig was getting on about in that book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Riding a motorcycle requires awareness and presence. There’s absolutely no room for your mind to wander off; otherwise, you risk serious injury. You must be aware of all the different things going on around you without being attracted to any of them.
Similarly, everyday waking life requires the same awareness and presence. We have to listen to and notice our thoughts. Constantly and repeatedly, we have to shift out of our autopilot setting and return to the present moment. Otherwise, we’re in danger of crashing and burning.
Becoming aware of our thoughts takes practice. Often, our thoughts take us along for a ride we don’t recall signing up for. In order to get off the ride, we need to develop our present-moment awareness. Cultivating a mindfulness practice is key to being able to recognize when your mind wanders off and training it to come back to the here and now. This is what Pirsig called the “art of motorcycle maintenance.”
Last May, I graduated from university. Before my graduation, I’d applied for scholarship funding to travel through Southeast Asia, namely Vietnam and Thailand. My proposal for funding was to travel through these predominantly Buddhist countries in order to learn more about Yoga and meditation.
Yoga, meditation and silence are a few methods by which a person can develop and hone the skills necessary to carry out Pirsig’s art form. As I researched places to focus on these practices, I discovered a Buddhist-inspired mindful recovery community in northern Thailand, and I headed there from Vietnam.
Started by two men who struggled with drug addiction, the New Life Foundation aims to help those suffering from addiction, trauma, burnout, relationship issues, anxiety and depression.
During my first month, I attended Yoga every morning, and the afternoon sessions as often as humanly possible. Getting up at 6:30 a.m. was something I hadn’t done since my graduation from college last May, but over time, it simply became part of my daily routine.
In one of my first classes, my teacher, Dominika, said Yoga was about fighting your mind.
Yoga cultivates mindful awareness of the body while it’s stretching, moving or holding a position. The postures are very gentle and done slowly, with moment-to-moment awareness. In one of my first classes, my teacher, Dominika, said Yoga was about fighting your mind.
At the time we were in downward-facing dog, and my mind was racing. Ugh, my shoulders are so tight. When are we going to move on to the next pose? Maybe I’ll take a breather and rest in child’s pose.
Dominika must have seen the looks on some of our faces, because she then said, through her thick Czech accent, “You guys, downward-facing dog is supposed to be a relaxing pose! Spread out your fingers and really feel the relaxation.”
Months later, I now understand what she was trying to communicate that day. Focusing on the positioning of my body parts in certain poses not only lessened the throbbing in my wrists and shoulders, it also made me aware of my body in the present moment. By focusing on my breath, I couldn’t get wrapped up in the self-doubt and negative thoughts racing through my mind. I was truly fighting my ego-mind and learning to listen to my body throughout every Yoga class.
There was also a mix of guided and silent meditation sessions. For some reason (unbeknownst to me at the time), I avoided meditation. However, near the halfway mark of my second month, I signed up for a one-on-one session with the new meditation teacher, Rosalie.
Right at the start of our meeting, Rosalie asked about my meditation practice and the question triggered something inside of me. The rest of the session consisted of me sobbing and Rosalie awkwardly staring on. Near the end, she suggested I register for a 10-day Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course she would be hosting in the coming days.
Much to my chagrin, I obliged. And I soon figured out why I’d avoided meditation for so long. Having to sit still and observe my thoughts scared the living crap out of me.
My thoughts were dark, existential and suicidal at times. There were no distractions in meditation. It was just me and my thoughts. Over the course of the 10 days, I fought with myself, cried, and made excuses, yet I learned so much.
If mindfulness is the practice of staying in the moment and allowing ourselves to be present, then meditation is the training ground to help you recognize when your mind wanders. The more you train, the faster you can catch yourself and bring yourself back to the present.
Despite my initial reluctance, meditation has become a cornerstone of my daily routine. The Buddha wasn’t kidding around when he spoke of the necessity of habitual meditation!
Silence and dance
In a world with so many voices, it can be hard to get quiet with yourself and really concentrate on what’s happening inside of you.
The whole community at New Life participates in noble silence from 21:30 (9:30 p.m.) until the morning meeting at 8.30.a.m. It seems innocuous, but in a world with so many voices, it can be hard to get quiet with yourself and really concentrate on what’s happening inside of you.
Another practice was dance. Through dance, we can connect with ourselves and others while ‘being’ in our bodies in addition to being in the moment.
Almost every weekend at New Life, there is a sober dance. For me, the moments of greatest aliveness, presence and connection come to me when I’m dancing with others: spontaneously moving my body to the rhythm and beats, without paying attention to what anyone else is doing, but simply allowing the music to wash over me and letting my body move in whatever way it pleases.
I also think the therapy offered at the Foundation is a contemplative practice in its own right. Beforehand, I never would’ve considered therapy to be spiritual, but why not? Twice a week, you sit with a trained professional and begin to identify your emotions and triggers, ground yourself in your body and release old traumas. Like Pirsig writes, “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”
Deepening my awareness over time
Thanks to these practices and my travels on a broader scale, my awareness has deepened. As I’m just a beginner on the motorbike, new to the art form, I’m overly cautious and easily distracted. But with time, the art of motorcycle maintenance should come to me more easily.